A stack of objects sits on the floor of the gallery, dominated by a cello and television. This is the unremarkable first impression of New York–based Australian artist Ian Burns’ Pond. And then, intermittently, a mechanical arm pulls a bow across the cello’s strings. The notes are instantly recognisable: the theme from Jaws (1975). Next, the underwater shadow of a hammerhead shark passes across the television screen and the sound of moving water is heard. Closer inspection reveals the movements of the sculpture’s seemingly casual assemblage of motors, cables and objects are constructing this image and sound in real time, captured and transmitted to screen and speaker via an integrated closed-circuit video camera and a microphone. Some of the objects are thematically linked to the image (a broken oar, fishing-rod parts and diving fins) but mainly they seem chosen at random: whatever was at hand to jerry-rig the effect.
In the early twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp introduced ready-made objects into art galleries, freeing them from their intended use. Video-art pioneer Nam June Paik, a clear influence on Burns, extended this idea in the televisual era. Paik’s work was seminal, bringing television monitors and closed-circuit cameras into art galleries. He stacked and modified monitors, altered their usual functions and incorporated them into sculptural assemblages. With its prominently placed cello, Pond references Paik’s TV Cello 1971, a work composed of a makeshift cello, constructed out of Plexiglass, and altered televisions displaying closed-circuit or broadcast video signals. TV Cello is a component of a larger performance work in which Charlotte Moorman, Paik’s collaborator, would play the instrument, and it is an example of Paik’s optimistic coupling of human and machine. Pond, typical of Burns’ work, is also an active performance. But it is enclosed and automated, executed over and over again by a lone mechanised assemblage. Yet, the precarious wonkiness of the sculpture still evokes a human presence: the artist’s hand constructing and balancing the mechanisms, reprogramming the objects.
Like Paik, Burns regularly incorporates found and obsolete materials. Indeed, Pond is reminiscent of kerbside rubbish, discarded consumer clutter, suggesting the figure of the junkyard tinkerer. Burns’ work also links to the mid-twentieth-century kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely, noisy, messy and ‘useless’ machines that set in motion fantastic combinations of cogs, wheels, motors and detritus. Such works mocked the efficiency of industrial mechanics and the dehumanising forces of Fordism and Taylorism. The satirical resonance is evident in the work of absurdist illustrators such as Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg, who devised similarly inane, complicated machines based on cause-and-effect mechanics. Burns shares the humour of all these artists, as well as their more ominous, thinly masked critique of materialism, energy consumption and the accumulation of objects and waste.
Video and sculpture inseparable, Pond produces a formal integration of the screened image and consumer objects, a gesture that reflects a basic condition of Hollywood cinema. Jaws, historically significant in developing the ‘blockbuster’ business model, exemplifies this. The film is just one product in an ocean of ancillary products. Its merchandise continues to be produced, circulated and discarded decades after the film was released. The special-effects film is suited to this structure of global commercialisation, due to the degree of its placelessness. The spectacle, the technical moment of the effect, can be enjoyed independently of the cultural specificity of narrative detail. Pond emphasises the pleasure of the effect, without narrative, but also draws attention to a further split in cinematic spectatorship: we are both enthralled by the effect but aware of its technical realisation. The fact that the shark in Jaws was a notoriously unreliable piece of mechanics only adds to its mythology, emphasising the permeability of the frame of the screened image, allowing the audience to be both immersed and aware. In an era of the apparent ‘lightness’ of the screen image, circulating at speed, the shifting frames of Pond, oscillating between image and stuff, emphasises its material imbrications. Across production, distribution and reception, images are implicated in the endless accumulation of things.
Kyle Weise is a curator at Metro Arts and co-director at Kuiper, both Brisbane.